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Reinhard Kleist:

Cuba & Castro

Acclaimed for his 2006 comic-strip biography of Johnny Cash, Cash: I See A Darkness, the Berlin-based graphic novelist Reinhard Kleist was given an open ticket by his publishers to visit any country he liked to create an illustrated travelogue. He chose Cuba, Fidel Castro’s one-party state and last outpost of socialism. “I had strong, romanticised images of Cuba in my head but I wanted to find out what lies behind them. Is Cuba really like Buena Vista Social Club? Is the Revolution really doing any good for the people or are the ideas now corrupted?” Waking up in Havana on March 9th 2008, Kleist began an intensive four weeks of talking to people, sketching, writing and photographing, with help from his local friends. “My questions got bigger and bigger. And every answer led to more questions.”

Back in Berlin, his Havana visions poured out into a book of revelatory reportage and sparked his next project, a biography of Castro himself, now translated by publisher SelfMadeHero. Kleist amassed a copious reference library on the enigmatic leader’s complex life and character, from a rare photo from Fidel’s boyhood, when young Fidel tried to stoke a workers’ uprising on his father’s farm, to his recent newspaper writings, which Kleist edits into a surprising self-critical epilogue during the elderly Castro’s hospital treatment. As the project expanded, Kleist realised the need to give a broader perspective on the Revolution’s impact on ordinary people through an alter ego’s voice. “I couldn’t have a Cuban narrator, because I am a foreigner, so I chose Karl, a young German journalist, who arrives in 1958 full of naive enthusiasm to interview Castro. He sees the triumph of the Revolution and decides to stay.”

Learning and experiencing alongside Karl, the reader can piece together the entwined destinies of Castro and Cuba, and the background to iconic images and events. “Cuba has always been a battleground for powers like Spain or America. Castro was the first to give back the Cuban people their pride. That is why the people love him still so much.” That love is tested, however, once power starts to corrupt, and in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when life becomes hard. Despite Karl’s friends leaving Cuba, what keeps him there are his ideals, and perhaps more so Lara, the female freedom fighter he first fell for.

Below, Kleist has expanded one of his on-the-spot pencil drawings from his Havana trip into a short documentary comic, a fusion of comics journalism and autobiography along the lines pioneered by Joe Sacco. “Miriam’s Story is about a woman I met, who went to prison because she had too many contacts with foreigners.” Castro inevitably makes an appearance, arguing back at the author from one of the city’s many propaganda posters. “It’s a device for me to have a paranoid discussion, to explore my inner conflicts. It lets me show both sides of the story, and the reader has to make up their own mind.”

I interviewed Reinhard Kleist on Monday July 4th 2011 at Foyles Bookshop, London at the launch evening for the English edition of Castro from SelfMadeHero, enlivened by freshly made mojitos courtesy of barman-PR extraordinaire Doug Wallace and the strains of Cuban music.

Paul Gravett:
What appealed to you to tackle Castro as your next subject?

Reinhard Kleist:
The first idea was to make a biography of Castro and his life, how he became the person behind the beard, wearing this olive green uniform. The process began when I was asked by my German publishers Carlsen to do a travel book about a country, wherever I’d like to go. In the news there had been reports on Castro’s resignation, so I chose to go to Cuba. I was learning Spanish before and I spent a month in Cuba and did research. I did a lot of sketches and paintings and did a blog which was horrible, because of the internet situation in Cuba. My friends always wanted to install internet access in the flat, but to do that they had to buy a phone number on the black market. There is control on the internet in Cuba. Their own intranet is ok, but access to the internet is severely regulated. The computer kept crashing and on my last day we got a connection and Google was on the screen. I always had to go to a hotel for tourists and buy a very expensive deal.

Did you come from a left-wing background?

No, but when I moved to Berlin and was associated a bit with the left wing, I always had strong images of Cuba in my head. I wanted to find out what lies behind those images. Is Cuba really like Buena Vista Social Club? I wanted to see if it really looked like I imagined, and find answers. Is the Revolution really doing any good for the people or are the ideas now corrupted? My questions got bigger and bigger. And every answer led to more questions. I had friends in Cuba who helped me. My Spanish was not so good and Cuban Spanish sounds very beautiful but with all the syllables running together, it was hard for me to understand. I talked to people and wrote a lot down. My book Havana was published half a year after my trip. It includes short stories, such as this one about a woman I met, who went to prison because she had too many contacts with foreigners. Very sad stories, but also very uplifting ones too. For Havana, I used a psychological trick to show readers what is going on in my head. Every time I have inner conflicts with myself, a poster of Castro appears on the wall and we have a paranoid discussion. This device lets me show both sides of the story and the reader has to make up their own mind.

How much of your book Havana did you produce while you were out there?

I had the idea I would come home to my flat each evening and paint beautiful pictures, but I was totally blocked. I did the finished illustrations when I came home to Berlin. Over there, I did a lot of sketches. I took lots of photos. I tried to capture the idea of the city, the atmosphere, the colours, the light, it’s a very special light in Havana.

When I came back to Berlin, pictures just poured out of me. I needed more pages. Which was very good for the book. This country has so many pictures to show.

I included this rather dark picture from when I visited the home of this Cuban woman who was living with her son in one room. The kitchen is that corner, and above, they have a bedroom across a mesh grill, because they do not have much space but they have high ceilings so they made an extra room on top.

When I got back to Berlin, it was finally not communism any more, so I was confronted with capitalism again. They actually wanted to raise my rent by 40 per cent. So much for freedom of the press. I always want to show in my book, that it’s not easy to find one position, because there is always another position, when you want to be objective.

Graphic biography demands research. What was your approach? Were all the images of Castro based on photos? What if there are no photos of him at a certain age?

I did lots of research and the problem you have is how to show him when he is 14 years old. There were not many photos of him when he was young. But there was one when he was hunting with a helmet on, with his dog. The distinguishing feature is his long nose, directly from the forehead, it’s like a Greek statue. His father was a farm-owner in the East of Cuba, so Fidel was quite privileged, he went to a good school, taught by Jesuit priests.

I was struck by how you show the young Castro being exposed and sensitised to injustice and prejudice from any early age.

He was always a rebel. When he was 12 he wanted to start an uprising of the workers at his father’s farm. That continued throughout his career. At the University in Havana, this melting pot, with all the shootings and they were not studying, I tried to explain how in this period he already showed his future political career, how he was very clever at using people to become what he wants.

He comes across as pretty manipulative.

Absolutely, he had a very strong aura. People followed him because he had such a presence. But they made mistakes. Castro tried to stage an assault on any army base which was a total disaster. They should have known before. They thought the soldiers would all be drunk, but they were totally shot down by the soldiers.

It was also Important for you to show the corruption of the Cuban regime and why there was need for revolution.

Yes, Cuba has always been a battleground for big forces like the USA or Spain. Castro was the first to give back the Cuban people their pride. That is one big reason why the people love him still so much.

For Castro, I see you’ve adjusted your graphic approach from Cash: I See A Darkness.

Yes, in Cash, I used a second layer of greytone to give the pictures more depth. But in Castro this looked too technical, so I chose just black and white, with some dry-brush painterly effects to give a sense of shade and colour. You can do so much with black and white, you don’t need colour.

You also use an unusual balloon style, very emphatic, in thick brush stroke outlines.

In my first books I tried to erase speech bubbles, to make them disappear, using floating text or coloured and transparent balloons, but it didn’t work, it looked quite nice but was not easy to read. So I wanted strong balloons, which only come later, after I have made the drawings, while I am still doing the inking.

How did your collaboration with Castro biographer Volker Skierka work out?

I had a lot of help from Volker Skierka. He is very busy, he likes to narrate stories from his past, how he met Pinochet, etc, so it look a long time to work on the text! I still had to draw more new pages. He would say, you have to make this story longer, more sex and violence, he was very much into it! My editor got mad at me. We started with 180 pages and now it’s more than 280 pages and it’s still too short!

It’s clearly a challenge with a life so rich and complex.

RK: There was the affair that Castro had with the German woman Marita Lorenz. There’s a whole documentary movie just about her [Lieber Fidel - Maritas Geschichte / Dear Fidel - Marita’s Story, 2000 ], a stunning personality. I only have one small episode on her, I just touched on her, because I had to concentrate on Castro’s story.

You also brought in a narrator, a German photographer, who comes to Cuba, to give another perspective.

He is like an alter ego, I found I needed a narrator. I wanted to show what was going on in the revolution, rather than showing Castro all the time. So when he signs a law, I want to show what happens in the food store, to someone who lives in Cuba. It’s not possible for me to have a narrator that is Cuban, because I am a foreigner. So I chose this young German journalist, who arrives in 1958 full of naive, enthusiasm, he sees the triumph of the revolution and decides to stay here and see what’s going on, the power of this beautiful movement. He reflects many intellectual people’s feelings at the time in the Sixties. The Cuban revolution was the most successful and beautiful revolution. Europeans like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir came to Cuba and were totally fans of Che Guevara and Castro.

What usually happens with revolutions is that the revolutionaries have to take power and that’s when the whole thing gets corrupted. A lot of people resigned from this idealistic point of view and they criticised Castro and his followers. My character goes through this phase too but he left his country behind, so he has to adapt, and he has to stand behind his ideals, while his friends are leaving. With my first approach to the story, I wanted to have a really bad ending, have him alone, all his friends are gone, he is poor, frustrated, living alone. But then I thought why can’t he be lucky in the end? So I came up with an ending that turns the whole story around. I think this works better, because the main point of the story is how to follow your ideals. He is following them in his way and Castro is doing it in a completely different way.

When portraying iconic moments in history, how you are having to edit them into still drawings? Is it a challenge to translate them into comics form?

I had tons of pictures, so many iconic photographs, it was fun to follow them. The opening sequence is the setting and story behind the very famous photo by Alberto Korda of Che, I show how this photo came to be shot. Che appeared just for a few seconds, and the photographer took just two photos. I wanted to show how these idealised images are born. I also had a photo of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, but I show this condensed, I’m not going to try gigantic big scenes as in a movie. I was more interested to see what happened afterwards. I based this on a speech in a Cuban documentary movie, in which Castro explains that they want to install this Commitee to defend the Revolution, lots of people are applauding. Of course, a small country has to defend itself, but that can lead to horrible spying and oppression. That fascinated more than showing ships being blown up, to show what happens in a place under so much constant pressure. To show Castro getting angry, he has a very expressive face when making his speeches, so I used films of them.

Another very good story tell was his last goodbye to Che. He left in secret, hiding by dressing as a businessman. He had beautiful hair and they were plucking it all out so he was completely bald afterward.

I was also fascinated with Cuban poster art at the time, which they used to communicate with the people. I show the ‘Reves’ poster which means to turn something round, so you have the V for victory and V for Reves, very simply, everyone knew what it meant. By the 1990s, the people do not have much to eat, they have a pig in their house, they are always trying to get food, growing food on their balconies, the situation was really bad after the fall of the Soviet Union.

On the last pages, the epilogue, he is wearing a training jacket in the Cuban national collours, when he was in hospital being treated. These statements are extracted from his writings in newspapers, things he actually wrote, I put them together. He becomes very critical of himself.

He turned 85 this year. What will Cuba be like without Castro?

I was quite surprised, when I went to Cuba he had resigned from power in 2006 and nothing seemed to have changed. He was just not doing speeches all the time. There are some slight changes from his brother Raúl who starts to be more open. But a lot of people are disappointed because he is not changing that fast, but he is 80. They should let the younger ones take charge now.

Is there anyone else from the family to succeed him?

Raúl Castro has a very interesting daughter, Fidel’s niece, Mariela, she is doing a lot for the gay and lesbian movement in Cuba. They have a very open attitude towards gays and lesbians, which is completely different to say twenty or thirty years ago, when they had to work in labour camps.

How long did the Castro book take?

I was always thinking of the Castro book while I was working on the Havana book, and when I finished it I tried to write down the whole story of the Castro biography. And that was when the trouble began. I’m grateful that Mawil and my other studio colleagues had good nerves during all this! It took me some months to write the story down and the drawing and inking took almost one year. Which was quite quick for 300 pages, almost a page a day. I had to be quick because I had a tight deadline from my publisher and I want to be a good artist and be within my schedule, but I didn’t know that the book would get bigger and bigger!

My reference library has everything I could find, contact sheets of photos, books about the revolution I bought over from Cuba. My friends were asking, you must be crazy, why do you buy all this propaganda? I was reading Che Guevara’s Cuban diary which is really boring! Me and my editor would go over the script but this was a very chaotic process. Making sketches of Castro, I was trying to find how to portray the face more easily, to reduce it down to its special features.

While I was in Havana, I also spotted my model for Karl there, at a birthday party for the Cuban Juventud or youth organisation. There was this French journalist, this naive, enthusiastic young man, he looked just like I imagined Karl.

Is Castro aware of your books?

There was a man who came to get the Castro book signed at a comics festival in Munich and he asked me to sign it to ‘Fidel’. So I asked is this for someone with the same name, and he said no. He said he has contacts with the government so he can get a copy to Castro. Castro has a big library where he collects everything. He said Castro already has your Havana book and he likes it. So now I had to sit there and make a drawing for Castro, so my hands were really shaking! Don’t make a mistake!

Did you put any message inside?

I just wrote ‘para Fidel’.

Posted: September 17, 2011

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